Melech Ravitch's Two Encounters with Abraham Joshua Heschel

Article excerpt

Melech Ravitch (1893-1976),1 an important Yiddish poet and essayist, was the author of Meyn Leksikon2 a three-volume collection of brief essays or sketches of Yiddish authors, actors, and cultural activists. Abraham Joshua Heschel was the subject of a sketch in Vol. 2, pp. 21-23.3 The following is Ravitch's essay. I have tried to preserve his style and vocabulary.

Two scenes: 1925-Warsaw. I'm sitting at my desk with the big glass window, Tlomackie 13.4 It's been many hours that I've been calling on all my accounting skills, acquired during more than ten years of work in a bank in Vienna, to tie up the loose ends of the miserly budget of the writers union. On the other side of the wall are the club and the whole tumult of Yiddish journalism and Yiddish literature in Poland. My office is quiet and clean. All the chairs are in their place; all the papers are lying in order as if they were glued one to another. My mind is immersed in the accounts. Suddenly, I begin to think that someone has come in and is looking at me. I don't pay any attention. Five minutes go by. I lift my eyes and am momentarily frightened. In the corner, near the green door, stands a tall slender young man, in Warsaw hasidic dress. A long black coat, almost to the floor, his boots barely visible, with a small round cap with a small brim pressing on his brow-on his head. A severe face and though he looks at me very mild and guilty, he also looks irritated. The eyes black, deep, large, the skin brownish, with the first youthful beginnings of a dark beard. The lips full, passionate, dark-red. A bit of a tic and a small grimace around his mouth, almost like a whimsical reproof. Though the face is not too strongly Jewish, it is insufficiently classically Semitic-the tic soon makes it Jewish, hasidic, or even rabbinic. The young man knows that a literary almanac is being prepared-he has brought several poems. I remember. Almost in the first moment there flashed through my mind: A new Scholem Asch ... Because everything was somehow similar to the scene of Asch's arrival in our literature-even the face of this young man to the face of the young Asch.5

1946-Montreal. Purim. In the hotel room of a guest from New York. An acquaintance from Warsaw. I'm visiting the guest. After a few hours of talk-it is before noon-he excuses himself. He has to read the Megiuah. We will meet again in an hour-unless I want to stay. I stayed, the guest brought me his hat and he put on a yarmulke and read the Megillah with the trop and with a Warsaw accent and the well-known melody, which I hadn't heard for almost half a century. Since one does not have to be absorbed and concentrate while hearing the Megillah, even if one hears it only once in fifty years-I observed and thought about the guest, about my first encounter with him, twenty-one years ago. Everything in his face is as it should be after twenty-one years. Aside from the beard, which is clean-shaven with an electric shaver. Also the cigar, brown and aromatic, that the guest smokes from time to time, is in the rabbinical style, even like a hasidic rebbe.

The encounters are with Abraham Joshua Heschel, today doctor and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, author of Jewish philosophical works in several languages and-and this is for me the most important-author of a classic essay in Yiddish,"The East European Period in Jewish History," which he read at the 1945 YIVO conference in New York.6

If someone had asked us, the editors of the" Warshaver Shriften," in the year 1925 for a horoscope for this youngest author of ours, A. Heschel, we would have predicted all kinds of configurations of constellations, except for this one, that he would be the author of an essay that is truly a poem in prose, a lament for Judaism in the East, in all of its spiritual lengths, breadths, depths and heights.

I knew Abraham Joshua Heschel very little in Warsaw, seldom if ever corresponded with him, and read only a part of his work. …